Nurturing adolescent aspirations in Jharkhand

Girl Champion Neelam at the Kishori Ekta Youth Club in Jharkhand

Celebrating the International Day of the Girl Child this year was special with a visit to Jharkhand in early October. The Kishori Ekta Youth Club, a good two-and-a-half hour drive from Deoghar in Jharkhand, is located in the Phadam village in Palajori block, and is well connected by tar roads. The drive speeds past hillocks, lush green landscapes, clear air, herds of goats, and ducklings. Towards the end of the village, just next to the main road, is a pucca house with a narrow entrance. The world behind the narrow entrance took me by surprise. The walls are full of artwork by adolescent girls – hearts, parrots, peacocks, menstruating women, arms raised asking for menstrual hygiene,  impressions of girls’ hands on the charts with their photographs, their names and much more. 

At the adolescent girls’ centre, about twenty girls aged between 10 and 16 have gathered. After a round of introductions, they head outside into the open space around the house for some routine gameplay. Once back inside, they energetically fished out board games – one on myths about menstrual hygiene, another on factors that could support or impede the journey of an adolescent girl to be self-reliant, and another on problem-solving in times of crisis. Some of them hadn’t played the games before. They read the instructions out loud, shared their own interpretations and ended up in a laughing heap as the confusion grew.

The Kishori Ekta Youth Club, Jharkhand

As we spoke, I found the girls loved to play and paint at the centre – two very powerful mediums to liberate the body and express voice. Some of these girls had just restarted school as secondary schools are now slowly reopening in Jharkhand. Others were looking forward to the opening of their own schools – some of which are a good 8-10kms away from the village. I wondered what that distance would mean for them, and asked about their commute. “We will cycle to school!”, they all said confidently. Not even for a moment was there an iota of doubt in any of them – they were determined to to study, and they had worked out how to overcome the barrier of distance. 

During the lockdown some of them learnt to make rakhis, decorate diyas that earned them Rs 10-15 each. They kept these earnings to use in the club, where even some the younger ones proudly shared that they had “learnt something to earn that money.”

Adolescent girls playing board games in the Kishori Ekta Youth Club in Jharkhand.

Neelam is a Girl Champion for the community where this centre is located. A Girl Champion is a peer educator who facilitates club activities and is often seen as a role model in the community. She told me that while the club usually welcomes about 10 or 15 girls on a typical day, they had a special reason for gathering in larger numbers on that day. The club was getting a computer, and the Quest Alliance Anandshala team was setting it up. Like any ‘NGOwali’, I checked if the girls had used computers before. None of them had, even though some of them were in grade 10 and 11. But they had seen a computer, and understood the concept. When I asked some more questions about accessibility to digital platforms, they revealed that a majority of them had used a mobile phone for calls or messages, but not computers. Intrigued, I wanted to know what caused the excitement over this computer here at the centre. One of the girls volunteered an answer – “We will use Google!”. When asked how that would help, she replied in a typical adolescent tone – that unique mix of exasperation and amusement – “Humko nahi pata aur kya ho sakta hai computer pe, hum dekhenge toh pata chalega na?” (We don’t know what else can be done with a computer, we will know once we work (look) into it).  The spirit of curiosity and exploration was obvious, apart from the palpable joy of the entire group celebrating the arrival of a computer. 

Seeing the club in action gave me hope, and sparked many thoughts and ponderings. The girls in this club in remote Jharkhand seem confident, curious, wanting to explore, and ready to take risks. If we assume a similar spirit kindled in adolescents across the state, why then does Jharkhand have high child marriage rates, and issues of early pregnancy? The delicate spirit of this group resonated strongly with me. It is a spirit which, if nurtured, could only grow stronger and take on challenges as a community, but if throttled could get discouraged quickly. 

This was a sobering reminder of what many individuals experience during the adolescent phase. In contrast, Neelam is a wonderful example of that spirit nurtured. Having had to discontinue her studies due to health issues in the family, coupled with mounting education fees and other costs, she saved an honorarium payment, enrolled in college and is currently facilitating the club and pursuing her studies. In a way, she personifies the impact of Girl Champions in the community.

The Kishori Ekta Youth Club, Jharkhand

As State, society and civil society organisations, can we truly be open to engage with adolescent girls and parents, with the objective to encourage them? Each one has a role to play in making our schools a space that is encouraging and engaging. How do we as CSO’s not label programmes and not favour certain kinds of strategies over others? How do both state and CSO’s make parents allies and not operate in the paradigm of “parents are not interested”? These are questions that need quick and effective answers. Most importantly, we must acknowledge that adolescent girls are part of the solutioning, and models can be built to harness the adolescent spirit. Games, play, income-generating activities, modules and courses, health, computers, literacy – we need it all to support adolescent girls in the country. Many more Neelams are in the making at the club. They have defined their own paths, and we owe it to them to support their dreams and ambitions. 

Words By: Deepika K Singh, Quest Alliance
Photos By: Shitanshu Sharma, Quest Alliance

Choice & Circumstance: STEM aspirations among adolescents in Gujarat

Anandi1, from Rapar in Kutch, of a pastoralist community, speaks of how girls in her village are not allowed to study further. Anandi has managed to convince her parents. Rani, who is in a similar situation, says her parents are angry with her choice. Lahi tells us that she has discussed pursuing computer learning with her parents. Bidiya from Junagadh, on the other hand, laments that girls from her caste are not encouraged to continue education. 

Anandi, Rani, Lahi, and Bidiya and many young adolescents like them face several barriers to access higher education and to choose subjects of their choice. Their challenges are marked and made acute by socio-cultural factors; their caste, class, and location. For instance, For Anandi from Kutch, the gender norms are worse than her counterparts in the tribal belt of South Gujarat. Each of the different region’s histories and cultures intersperses to determine the challenges and opportunities for young adolescent girls. Often several of them will face a backlash from parents for their choices. At other times, adolescent girls tend to believe the self-limiting beliefs they have heard regarding their abilities. 

Quest Alliance’s work in Gujarat under the IBM STEM for Girls program reaches 14,000 students in Gujarat and works to enable girls to break some of these shackles, encourage them to pursue their dreams, and strives to break gender stereotypes to enhance their agency and make informed career and life choices. As part of the program, to build on the experience from the field and to generate primary evidence to inform the program, we undertook research with 345 students (85% girls and 15% boys) in the government secondary schools of Gujarat across 15 districts2 to investigate young adolescents’ ability to choose subjects of study,  the barriers they face in employing these choices and the interventions required to empower them to exercise these choices. 

Despite gains in higher education for women, research shows a clustering of women in particular sectors like health care and assistance, nursing, and clerical jobs3. The highest gaps are in engineering and technology accounting for only 10-20% female participation4.  According to AISHE5, The Engineering and technology enrolments for 2018-19 are 71.1 percent male and 29.9 percent female. It is partly because the nature of subjects is already determined to be gendered, with STEM subjects specifically considered to be masculine. These gaps, if not addressed, run the risk of further exclusion of women in a workplace where trends in the future of work suggest the highest increase of jobs in the technology sector. 8 out of the 10 fastest-growing jobs are in the technology sector6. Additionally, our recent research study7 “STEM Mindset, Careers and Women” shows that STEM skills and mindsets are essential requirements across sectors. Against this, considering that math, science, and technology are emerging as top skills required across careers now and in the future, we must examine two critical queries: where and how do young women enter an increasingly STEM-oriented economy? What amounts to true choice, and are young women able to employ it? 

An empowered choice should include a critical understanding of one’s own beliefs, the infrastructure to enable these choices – instead of adaptive preferences – and the agency given to adolescents to employ this choice. Against this, in Gujarat, we find that several factors contribute to adolescent decisions. 

Geography Matters. So does Infrastructure.
Nearly 62% of respondents base their decisions on education on the proximity of schools to their homes. Additionally, teacher availability, capability to grasp a subject and context, ability to manage classwork and housework, as well as job prospects are key elements that determine subject choices among secondary school students in Gujarat. Interestingly, the tribal belt of South Gujarat(1) showed the highest uptake for Science subjects, despite being one of the state’s poorer regions. This could suggest that economic conditions can only be marginally relevant, while gender, space for autonomy, and infrastructure hold greater value toward making subject matter choices. We also noted that students from districts considered under North and Central Gujarat were more focused on self-related outcomes (“I will find job satisfaction”) whereas students in Southern Gujarat were seen to place a higher value on social outcomes (“My family’s social status will improve”). 

Career Pathway Information is Critical
One key finding of the study was the information gap regarding Science careers. Many students have little to no knowledge of potential career choices available to them. Many of them do not pursue science subjects (even if they are initially inclined to do so) due to a false belief that jobs in the science stream are few and far between. 

Relevance of Growth Mindsets
Ability-based biases were seen to be predominant among most students. The belief that only “intelligent” students can take up science and math is prevalent amongst adolescents, with nearly 70% of students admitting to the belief that one’s intelligence determines their math and science abilities. Close to 55% of students believe that an “innate ability” in these subjects cannot be changed. Both boys and girls were found to hold these fixed, limiting beliefs about who can succeed, based on ability, as well as exam scores. However, girls scored worse than boys. 

Gender is a key mediator of choice
The study found gender norms and gender stereotypes play a key role in decision-making among young adolescents. Nearly 37% of the adolescents believed in gendered notions of subjects that  ‘Men are better than women at Science and Math’ thus limiting their choices based on the internalisation of limiting beliefs. Gender norms play a significant role as well. We find that equitable distribution of household work may improve the chances of girls choosing Science. For instance, As noted earlier, the ability to manage housework and schoolwork was a key concern for all students. However, for students choosing Science; this does not emerge in the first three factors influencing decisions. For instance, in districts under Saurashtra regions and Kutch and Morbi region, reasons such as having enough time in classwork and housework (for over 50% of the sample) are prominent determinants for subject choice as opposed to less than 30% in districts considered under Central/North and South Gujarat where Science is preferred more prominently.

The importance of relatable role models and negotiation to employ choice
Our study also found that negotiation is one of the key methods through which girls employ choice. Students use role model examples to convince parents of their career choices, with more favourable opinions towards achievers from one’s community, village, or town. Negotiation was observed to work best for adolescents when parents and students shared an understanding of the possibilities of choosing their desired stream. We find that having relatable role models makes a considerable difference.

Multi-stakeholder model essential 
An adolescent’s socio-cultural landscape strongly influences the choices he/she makes regarding their studies and careers. Our focused study, as well as continuous interventions in the sector, show that multiple actions are required to make a positive impact on an adolescent’s choice and decision-making. Firstly, evidence-based approaches must be used to understand the nuances of regions and geographies. Further, since the choices an adolescent makes are situated amidst family, school, and societal structures, engagement with multiple stakeholders allows for more impactful shared experiences. Second, Gender – related interventions must be addressed also towards boys. The evidence from our research points significantly to the fact that girls fare much better on gender awareness issues. 

Bringing girls to a place of power will need interventions to address these challenges. These will include understanding the location-specific challenges of the adolescent, addressing self-limiting beliefs towards STEM subjects and careers, addressing the paucity of knowledge in relation to career-thinking and potential career pathways that are available, introducing relatable role models, and engaging with parents and community towards better gender norms. 

Written by:
Priyanka Krishna
Research Specialist, Quest Alliance

 (1) All names are anonymised
(2)   Districts considered for the study: Ahmedabad, Banaskantha, Mehsana (clubbed under North and Central Gujarat). Jamnagar, Botad, Surendranagar, Rajkot, Bhavnagar, Junagadh (clubbed under Sourashtra regions), Kutch and Morbi, and Narmada, Surat, Dang, Chota Udepur (clubbed as South for purpose of study to gain implementation specific details)
(3) https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/gender-equality/the-future-of-women-at-work-transitions-in-the-age-of-automation
(4)  http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/science-technology/engineering/women-in-engineering/
(5)   http://aishe.nic.in/aishe/reports
(6)  Emerging Jobs: India, The fastest growing jobs in the country, LinkedIn, September 2018.
(7) https://www.questalliance.net/our-publications

How Quest Alliance is playing the role of an ecosystem builder with Q2L

“We need to ask ourselves – are we really putting our heads together as a community to work on a problem? Or are we doing it in our own spaces?”

As the city cools off amidst a string of showers, so does the fervour that characterised this year’s Quest2Learn Summit. Weeks of relentless work had culminated in a two-day conference, inadvertently setting the standard for discourse around the future of work and learning.

In a freewheeling chat at the Bangalore International Centre, Aakash Sethi – CEO of Quest Alliance – sinks into a chair, ready to organize his thoughts and reflect on the days that passed by and what it means for the ecosystem. Excerpts:

Continue reading “How Quest Alliance is playing the role of an ecosystem builder with Q2L”

Not just another IAS aspirant

While it may not be entirely inaccurate to say that cyberspace may be saturated with desperate accounts of IAS-aspirants hailing from smaller towns. But I’m willing to bet that 17-year-old Amisha is special. Here’s why!

“A little to the right…no, too much…slight left…slight right…perfect!”

The limits of my moderately-priced phone’s camera is tested as it tries to do justice to the innocence and charm radiating from its subject. When not smoothing out the crease on her kurta or adjusting her spectacles, this lanky 17-year-old beams into the lens, silently imploring me to release her from her misery.

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Meet Amisha Choubey.

Continue reading “Not just another IAS aspirant”

Building Trust, Strengthening Education

The importance of improving relationships and building trust between parents, teachers, and communities for improved education

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In the development of a school, the local community has a crucial role to play. Teachers and community members both see the development of students as a priority, but the challenge lies in channelling this shared desire in a productive way. A lack of trust between the school and the community lies at the heart of the matter – school personnel generally seem to believe parents are not interested in their child’s education, and parents similarly seem to believe teachers are not productive. Continue reading “Building Trust, Strengthening Education”